Loads of Learned Lumber

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Fifth note on _Witz_

5. I began by saying that the events of the story are readily summarized, and have just noted that the book vividly conjures up its settings, but event and setting are always seen through the decorated scrim of the book’s narrative style; like a scrim, the style is not fully transparent, and as with a decorated scrim you may find yourself paying as much attention to the decorations as to the action occurring behind it. More attention, perhaps – as in Gaddis’s Recognitions, tracking the turns of the sentence is so absorbing that you may fail to take in what is being narrated. The reader is always conscious of Cohen’s style: le style, c’est le livre.

And his style beggars description. It’s a torrent, for one thing, a deluge, an outpouring. Sentences routinely take up most of a page. The sentences are self-interrupting, constantly breaking in on themselves to illustrate, expand, make a joke. They usually embrace several tonal registers during their course, from the demotic to the epic, sometimes sounding like Lenny Bruce on amphetamines, sometimes biblically ornate like Cormac McCarthy, if McCarthy liked to pepper his prose with Yiddish and Hebrew. Alliteration and puns abound.
Consider some of the phrases from the sentence on the fart salvoes, quoted above. “[E]normous sortie wet and thick” – note the little internal rhyme on the “or” sound, the adjectives before and after the noun, the military flavor of the noun, conveying how men enjoy bringing a martial ardor into even the most ludicrous circumstances, figured later in the sentence with “barrage,” “booms,” “bombs.” Or “bucking the uppers,” with its surprising assonance, the animated-cartoon image of bunks lifting and falling from the abrupt shock of the farts. The odd Miltonic inversion of “from cot to cot echoing.” The quirky juxtaposition of homonyms in “there their.” The outlandishly apt figuration of farts as “dark graffiti.”

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Arielle Greenberg, _My Kafka Century_

HERE IS THE book's back jacket copy:

"In My Kafka Century, Arielle Greenberg raises the gothic European ghosts sealed under the glib facade of contemporary American culture. Trying on the sometimes hilarious, sometimes discomforting guises of Jewish folk humor, pop eroticism, and kiddie epistemology, she reveals and revels in the cracks and contradictions of a bristling, brainy Babel."

I despair of improving upon that. I don't know about "glib facade" -- if you recall the original meaning of the word "facade," the figure may seem silly -- but the writer seems to have read the book and actually grasped something of its strategies and achievements, as opposed to 99% of jacket copy for volumes of poetry ("So-&-so's brilliant new collection embraces themes of change, vision, and history in astonishingly evocative language"). The jacket copy is a much better indicator of the volume's contents and quality than the blurbs: "intellectually challenging" (zzz), "dazzling explorations" (yawn), "a dark confection" (nice try, but...).

So who was writing the jacket copy for Action Books in 2005? Some U. of Alabama grad student, I suppose, but whoever it was, he or she sure nailed it. As you might gather from the copy, this volume is like some sweet, funny, clever kid you met in fourth grade who turns out to have a pet tarantula and a scab collection.

That would be plenty, I'd say, but there's more -- startling, strange, moving poems on pregnancy ("Honey," "One Hundred and Eighty," "Red Rover," "Katie Smith Says [...]," for instance, and remarkably original meditations on Jewishness. The final poem, "Synopsis," reads like a highly compressed and highly idiosyncratic montage of the history of the Jews -- or of one person's memories of learning that history -- in 46 short sentences. Lines 18-30:

Boys are plied with wine and snipped.
I pray according to daylight.
Next year will return to the city of gold.
I shield my eyes from the priests' blessing.
Girls get two candles each.
I stood at the bottom of a mountain with my soul.
A very small parcel of real estate was promised.
I was taken for a fool by my village to make a story.
He offered the angels his most finely sifted flour.
I hid in an attic with my diary.
The tents are goodly.
I was a lost tribe and came out black.

Fourth note on _Witz_

4. As for plain-label realism itself, the book has many episodes of nuanced social observation, vividly presented. There’s an extraordinary account of Israel and Hanna’s wedding (241-46); the museum gala with which the Benjamin part of the book closes is another excellent set piece. Ditto for the accounts of the Florida apartment complex of Benjamin’s grandfather, or of the Vegas hotel in “Los Siegeles,” or of the Southwest, or the suburban development in which the Israelsteins live, of Israel’s law office, of Chinatown. The novel is very good at the kind of thing novelists like Trollope and Updike are good at – noticing what it is about the way we live now that we are too inattentive to notice, helping us to see our own world.

The novel’s many extraordinarily effective mimetic passages are all cast in the book’s idiosyncratic style, however, which is a whole other topic.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Gary Shteyngart, _Super Sad True Love Story_

I STARTED THIS soon after finishing Sam Lipsyte's The Ask, and that may be why they seemed to have so much in common. The central main character in both is a shlimazel, a misfortune magnet, whose hold on his job is tenuous and whose beloved is starting to notice better prospects. Both have a satirical thrust, Lipsyte's novel exaggerating (slightly) the vice and folly of our time to blackly humorous effect, Shteyngart's extrapolating from that vice and folly to create an all-too-possible near future (all are rigorously judged according to youthfulness, wealth, and conformity to current fashion, the country erupts in violence when China and the E.U. call in their chits), again to blackly humorous effect. Both seemed to me...

Time out. OK, what is the right way to form an adjective based on Evelyn Waugh's name? "Waughian" won't do. Perhaps add a "v," on analogy with Shaw --> Shavian? We'll go with that.

...Wauvian (looks peculiar, but I'm sticking with it), especially the Waugh on Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust, hilarious and chilling, laughter with a bleak, frozen wasteland at its core.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Third note on _Witz_

3. Magical realism? Kinda sorta, maybe. Benjamin is born bearded, wearing glasses. The first catastrophic dying-off of the Jews occurs on the eve of the day his bris would have been celebrated, so he is uncircumcised – except that his foreskin magically circumcises itself, then grows back, removes itself again, and so on. A pack of feral dogs out of some mittel-european forest almost hunts him down as he is being returned from Florida to New Jersey. That Benjamin is set up in a simulacrum of his family home with thirteen shiksas playing the parts of his mother and sisters has a kind of fantastic quality. A certain hyperbole prevails throughout – but in this respect the book seems not at all like deadpan accounts of the incredible we get in Garcia Marquez, hence not all that magical-realist.

Is it a Jewish magical realism, then? Hmm. Jonathan Safran Foer (ptoo, ptoo, ptoo) seemed to be attempting something of the sort in the shtetl chapters of Everything Is Illuminated; Witz never sounds like that (like I. B. Singer crippled by an MFA). But here is Cohen describing a contagious outbreak of farting that occurs in the Great Hall on Ellis Island, which has temporarily become a dorm for Jewish first-born sons:

He grunts, then as if to say hello, to introduce himself he farts, a poof, a toot, is answered by that mensch neighboring, a response given upon permission, shameless, with another fart, this rip huge, Rrrrrrrip! an enormous sortie wet and thick, which tears a hole right out of his uniform pajamas, this sound echoed six beds down then maybe two over with another, is duetted with, a ffrrip, and yet another, pow, pow, -- and – pow from opposite sides of the barracks, a barrage of miniexplosions, from cot to cot echoing against the corroded collapsing wet walls, stacked booms rocking the lower bunks, bucking the uppers, bombs from the rafters to incise there their own dark graffiti, signing a scatology’s name. (155-56)

There are two more even longer sentences on this festival of flatulence. Not magical realism, exactly, but an embrace of fabulism, perhaps? A willingness to go over the top, road of excess, palace of wisdom, etc.? Its ancestor seems not so much Garcia Marquez as Philip Roth in his especially manic mid-70s phase, the Roth of Our Gang and The Great American Novel, and, later, my favorite bits of Operation Shylock.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Jill Lepore, _The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle over American History_

THIS IS LEPORE more in her New Yorker mode, writing for a general audience, than in her Bancroft Prize mode (even so, there are 30-plus pages of notes), seven chapters with the grace and movement of essays that braid together several strands: her conversations with current Tea Party members at various rallies and other events in Boston, other movements and events (abolition, the bicentennial) when Americans looked back and tried to see an image of themselves in the people and ideas of the founding of the republic, and her own accounts of those people, events, and ideas (the original Tea Party, Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill, Phyllis Wheatley, Paul Revere...).

A fine book, really -- well-informed, well-written, thoughtful. All in all, hard to figure out why Gordon Wood decided to blow the whistle on it in NYRB.

Lepore knocks down the Tea Party's vision of the Revolution without even really trying -- the number of people who know more about the period than she does is probably in the low single digits -- but she does not disrespect the people she interviews, it seems to me, nor suggest that they are more ignorant than most about the Revolution. People with politics 180 degrees away from those of the Tea Party, she acknowledges, are just as likely to make up self-serving myths about the founding era. She seems to welcome curiosity and interest in the period, and even takes historians to task a bit for not trying harder to connect with a broader reading public (67-69).

All in all, hard to tell how the bee got in Professor Wood's bonnet. It couldn't be because Lepore gave Wood's contribution to the Oxford History of the United States a respectful ho-hum when she was in the reviewer's chair? Surely not.

Second note on _Witz_

2. So far, so picaresque. From even this bare summary, we glimpse many ways in which Cohen’s narrative has Judaic resonances. Hanna and Israel’s family is an inversion of Jacob’s, with twelve daughters instead of twelve sons; the disaster in which all Jews but first-born sons die is an inversion of the tenth plague visited upon the Egyptians in Exodus, with Santa Claus re-cast as the Angel of Death; Las Vegas’s new name honors the Jewish gangster, Bugsy Siegel, whose vision the city embodies; “Polandland” is an inversion of the Holocaust, in which Gentiles die for being Gentiles.

But we’re just getting started. Ben has oral sex with his ersatz mother on Tisha B’av (“The Ninth of Av”), the day on which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed, ever since a day of mourning, and according to some traditions the day on which the Messiah will be born. Ben performs cunnilingus on “Hanna” so energetically that he winds up in her uterus, which is described as a Jerusalem, then tumbles back out – so is he “born”? The novel keeps the idea of Ben-as-Messiah constantly in play. He emerges in “Palestein” not only horned (as, in one mistranslation, Moses was, hence Michelangelo’s statue) but in the company of a red heifer, red heifers being a crucial criterion for the future construction of the Third Temple, to be accomplished when the Messiah comes.

It would take days to list the allusions to Jewish traditions, learning, and folkways that occur in the novel. One striking example: Cohen’s description of the facility for Jewish first-borns, in which their submission to bureaucracy and authority is shot through with memories of both Ellis Island and of the Nazi concentration camps.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

J. M. Coetzee, _Slow Man_

AS IN DISGRACE and Diary of a Bad Year, we have a case of ill-targeted desire; after losing a leg in a bad bicycle accident, Paul Rayment falls in love with his nurse, prompting a number of exaggeratedly generous offers to help her children, perhaps with the goal of swaying her love from her husband to herself.

Divorced and childless as well as missing a leg, Rayment is perhaps trying to turn his life into a Hollywood screenplay in which a loss is amply compensated by making possible some greater gain. Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino and Victor Nunez's Ulee's Gold come to mind, Rayment being an older man, but examples abound. A kind of secularized theodicy -- yes, there is pain and loss, but in the bigger picture... etc.

However, the nurse and her family do not play along. They appreciate Rayment's gestures, up to a point, but find him a little weird, a little off-putting, and resist being adopted the way he wants to adopt them.

Elizabeth Costello -- a writer/animal rights activist from Coetzee's novel that bears her name -- shows up, invites herself into Rayment's home and life, and tries to talk him out of his deluded project. Her abrupt comings and goings and her mysteriously exact knowledge of Rayment's circumstances lead the reader to think that Rayment is actually a character in a novel Costello is writing. But he is a character with a mind of his own. She wants him to go in a certain direction -- he resists.

The nurse's family's resistance to Rayment's project goes to show that people don't want to be merely characters in someone else's novel -- the Costello vein of the novel goes to show that even characters in novels don't want to be characters in other people's novels. Rayment's resistance to and resentment of Costello should enable him to understand his situation vis-à-vis the nurse's family, and by novel's end, he is perhaps beginning to. Perhaps. As the title indicates, he's not quick.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

First note on _Witz_

1. Even though this is a very long novel (817 pages), its main story line is readily summarized. On December 17, 1999, a son, Benjamin, is born to Israel and Hanna Israelien of New Jersey, who already have twelve daughters. A week later, on Christmas Eve, all the Jews in the United States die, except those who are first-born sons. Ben is temporarily put in the care of his grandfather in Florida (also a first-born son), but the surviving first-born sons, including Ben, are gathered into a special institution by government command. At Passover, however, a second catastrophe strikes, and all of the first-born son Jews die as well, except Ben. Somehow, in the wake of this catastrophe, almost all of the United States converts to Judaism, or we might say adopts it, there being no Jews left to conduct any formal conversions.

Ben is now a precious commodity; he is provided with a model of his family’ home, complete with women performing the roles of his mother and sisters, is being groomed as a kind of royalty-celebrity, and is engaged to the president’s daughter. The wedding is to be held on the 4th of July in Las Vegas – here, Los Siegeles – but Ben lights out for the territory. He roams the southwest, then makes his way eastward, finding his way to his family’s abandoned house in New Jersey, then reuniting with his ersatz mother and sisters. He has a spectacular episode of cunnilingus with his ersatz mother (in the course of which his tongue is ripped out), news of which leaks out via a hotel maid, leading to his disgrace and fall. Now an outlaw, he flees to Poland – here, “Polandland,” now owned and administered by the U.S. as a kind of Old World theme park with a sinister purpose: those who have refused to become Jews are brought here to be put to death.

Ben, however – I’m not sure how – emerges in “Palestein,” which in the alternate universe of this novel is an Arab monarchy. He has grown horns. He has an extraordinary visionary experience that ends, I suspect, in his death. In the final chapter of this main story line of the book, a museum holds a gala event to celebrate the acquisition of a sacred relic—Ben’s tongue.

The novel has a coda of some thirty pages in which the last living Holocaust survivor muses in unpunctuated, Molly-Bloom fashion over his past and present. He is 108, and the novel ends with the punchlines – only the punchlines – of 108 Jewish jokes.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A. R. Ammons, _The Selected Poems: Expanded Edition_

I RECENTLY LEARNED that a contemporary poet of interest to me had been influenced by Ammons, whom I knew only through a few anthology pieces, e.g. "Corsons Inlet." It seemed like a good enough reason to drink more deeply of A. R. A.

Not all selected poems volumes are arranged by order of composition (and in this instance the publishers give us no clue), but I always tend to read them that way, and in this instance the succession of poems did suggest the progress of a career. Early on, a certain Eliotesque quality in which the landscapes seem more metaphysical than actual, even tipping into allegory -- then a Whitmanian era, long-lined, deep-breathed poems embracing process and heterogeneity -- then short-lined, imagistic poems (W.C.W.?) dropping down the page like a plumb line -- then a phase of unrhymed, heavily enjambed terza rima.

These last seemed to me the least compelling -- there's even a poem, "Sorting," which by talking about how dry the heights are suggests that inspiration can slow to a trickle with age. But some of the late stuff is superb: "Easter Morning," for instance, which reminded me a lot of Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, which I saw only a couple of days ago -- the shards of memory, the insolubility of the past, the profusion of the natural world, the sudden sucker-punch of grace.

Easy to see why Harold Bloom thought well of Ammons -- deep affinities with Wordsworth, Shelley, Whitman, Stevens, consciousness in dialogue with nature, identifying with it at one moment, insisting on its difference in another, interrogating, surrendering. The wind seems to be Ammons's totemic image throughout his career, going through a spectrum of permutations: "So I Said I Am Ezra," "In the Wind My Rescue Is," "Guide," "Project," "Small Song," "Conserving the Magnitude of Uselessness."

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Stacy Doris, _Cheerleader's Guide to the World: Council Book_

I PICKED THIS up because of intriguing excerpts in Swenson & St. John's American Hybrid. It was as intriguing as a whole as it was in part, but it's hard to describe.

In a prefatory note, Doris herself describes the book as "a sort of sandwich-translation read-through of four books: Popul Vuh, Paterson, Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the Secret Autobiographies of Jigme Lingpa." So... suppose you are reading something from an ancient civilization quite remote from your own, and recall that feeling one often has in reading such texts, that sense of missing something, that feeling that even though the words have been translated into your own language, some necessary contextual framing is unavailable to you, there are frequencies humming in the work that you can sense but not really hear. Imagine there are illustrations brought in from the original text, that seem to bear some relation to it, but again, what exactly are they illustrating, why in this way? Would the illustrations explain all if we knew what we were looking at?

So, imagine that sense of fascinated bafflement, understanding something of what you are reading, but being aware of likely missing more, and not being wholly confident that you really understood anything at all.

OK. Now imagine a text produced by our own culture that could conceivably create that same feeling in someone for whom our civilization is ancient and remote.

And now imagine a text that will give us here and now that feeling of bewilderment that our present cultural products will someday create in that reader for whom our culture is ancient and remote. Good? That text is Cheerleader's Guide to the World: Council Book.

The poems are uttered by (I think) the collective consciousness of the cheerleaders as they ponder the activities of the football players and the coaches. The poems are paratactic, disjunctive, elusive, but with an occasional startling lyricism ("Molten so praised bottle / bent to sand congratulations. / An improved carnage") -- quite a bit like reading a conscientiously literal translation of an unseizable ancient text.

Accompanying most of the poems are diagrams of American football plays (drawn by Bill Baker). Do these comment on the poems somehow, or vice versa? Are these the plays to which the cheerleaders are reacting? In any case, they are not at all self-explanatory, their relation to the text unguessable, swirling us again into that strangely satisfying limbo of confronting something decipherable which we lack the means to decipher.

Finally, allegory may be at work. The book reflects Doris's interest in "Money-Love-Writing," Doris says in her note, leading me to wonder if the cheerleaders represent writers -- Pindar was a cheerleader, she notes, his odes dedicated to celebrating the achievements of Olympic athletes -- while the football players represent those executing the fly patterns and end sweeps of capitalism, arcane to outsiders, overseen by the coaches of the Wall Street, the Federal Reserve, et alia? And then who loves whom in this allegory -- or is getting screwed by whom?

Yeah! Lose to win!
Scatter yourselves!
Bloodspill depicts
the reason for life.
Rain's made of it.
Go quench your thirst.

I wouldn't bet the farm on my allegorical interpretation, to tell you the truth, but it hovered in the back of my mind nonetheless as I read this utterly unique book.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Chris Bachelder, _Abbott Awaits_

THIS, TOO, I reviewed elsewhere, although it will likely be a while before the review sees the light of day, so rather than go into matters in detail I will confine myself to an observation and a question.

The observation: what a fine, fulfilling, complete book this is, confirming Bachelder's status as one of my favorite young contemporary novelists.

The question: so why is it this guy is being published by a university press? LSU Press has a reputation for publishing excellent fiction (e.g., Confederacy of Dunces), and a lot of university presses do a nice job of promoting the fiction they publish (e.g., U. of Nebraska), but still...! This is Bachelder's third novel, all three have been original, intelligent, funny, and moving, but apparently commercial publishers are not (as justice would require) beating down his door, even though he's every bit as or more interesting than -- well, let's say Claire Messud, or Jonathan Safran Foer, or Nicole Krauss, or Joshua Ferris, or any number of folks who books lie in stacks at my local Barnes & Noble, get ads in the NYTBR, get shortlisted for prizes, and so and so forth. It's an old, old story, I know, but the older I get the more I resent it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Butler, _There Is No Year_

I WROTE SOMETHING about this that is eventually to appear in another venue, so I will here content myself with saying the novel lives up to its anticipatory buzz -- which is saying much. It really does turn out to be as strong as it was said to be (in contradistinction to, I would say, Freedom).

According to an interview I found on an internet trawl, Butler decided to write fiction after discovering Infinite Jest, and Wallace's death is noted in the novel at about its midpoint, at the end of Part Two. This seems fitting to me. I haven't encountered a novel by a young writer this original, this ambitious, and this rich since I picked up Infinite Jest, going on fifteen years ago.
In that same internet trawl, I saw a couple of references to the book being perhaps indebted to Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves. Urkgkh. I think not. Yes, there are the same use of unusual typographical and other design elements and the same conceit of a house capable of gaming the rules of time and space. But House of Leaves is a sophisticated horror tale, I would say. I gave up about p. 250, I think, because the prose is simply too gaseous to tolerate.

An argument could be made, I grant, that since Zampanó is writing an academic treatise with generous slabs of quotations from other academics, his prose needs to be as stiff and dry as cardboard, as Johnny Truant's needs to have a stoner's vagueness and looseness. But this translates into hundreds of pages of bad writing.

The prose in This Is No Year is lean, feral, cold, almost merciless. It remains austere even when creating its most outlandish, sensational effects. It is built to last.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Mark Levine, _The Wilds_

THIS ONE MAKES Enola Gay feel a bit sophomore-slumpish in retrospect; one wouldn't call it a "return to form" or anything like that, but it has an integrity and energy that Enola Gay didn't quite have, and I expect it to stay with me longer.

Made me think of -- of all people -- Dylan Thomas. It must be fifty years or so since any American poet would welcome being compared to Dylan Thomas, but I have a soft spot for him.

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, a cock on his shoulder, it was all
Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
The sky gathered again
And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
Out of the whinnying green stable
On to the fields of praise.

That's from "Fern Hill." What with the dew and the maiden and the "wanderer white," the poem does not sound much like anyone writing today, and certainly not like Levine, but --

When you were in possession
of the pods and pens and octagonal plots
and your grappling hooks clattered in summer wind
and you loosed the bitter petal

-- that's from "Hand," and something, the idea of a memory vaguely rural, of a paradise which was lost, or just "summer" (as in "boys of...") rang a Thomas bell for me. Above all, there is a feeling for childhood being paradoxically very near and very far away at the same time ("more distant than stars and nearer than the eye," as Eliot wrote) in "Hand, " "Ontario," "Quarry," and "Grade Three."

Hard to think of anyone who renders being outdoors better than Levine:

We were there yet
sizing up the scenery
through the spokes of
the one wheel moving
this way, the other
that. There were four
corners of us promenading
in the sensation of
walking boots. The countryside
yielded a desert flower
on which a bee
reeled in the rain.
A mill wheel spun.
This was a place
we were in it
in sensation going there.


But it's complicated -- there is a gulf between the human and the wild, even if you're as attuned as Levine, as the final poem, "Willow," seems to suggest:

You take it in or you don't
You hide the sky or else.
Things lived in you.
You, stranger.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Michael Earl Craig, _Thin Kimono_

HIS THIRD BOOK, but the first I've read. Grounded, plain-spoken, drily funny -- in some ways, not the kind of book I expect from Wave Books. I do enjoy Wave Books and I did enjoy Thin Kimono, you understand -- it's just that they occupy what seem to me different points in the spectrum. So no offense to anyone, OK? OK.

Not that Craig is incapable of the kind of legerdemain that is one of the characteristics of Wave Books. "Diana" is a 6-page poem all but entirely composed of lines from Diana, a 1927 novel by Vida Hurst. Judging from what we get, Diana was a fairly ordinary novel about the reckless and feckless privileged types in the 20s, and the poem has something of the fizzy, heady quality of watching a two-hour Gloria Swanson melodrama that has been edited down to eight minutes. At one point in both novel and poem, Diana "dropped her clothes to floor, wrapped a thin kimono about her aching body and threw herself on the bed"-- hence the title.

And what a great title! It's half of the reason why I bought the book. (Plus one-quarter its being short-listed by The Believer for poetry volume of the year and one-quarter Craig's giving a reading in the town where I live.)

Another particularly intriguing part of the book is the 18 8-line poems that constitute Part II of the book. Craig did not intend them to constitute a whole -- I know because I took the trouble to ask him -- but the consistent form, the grouping of them together as a section without titles, and a sustained, wry observational humor nonetheless make the eighteen poems feel like they belong together, that they are having a kind of indirect conversation among themselves, with more than a few loose ends, true, but enjoying each other's company. Here too, as in Doller's Dead Ahead, one might detect a Muldoonian note or two:

He said she was like a gorge to him.
How so? she said.
He didn't say. She said something
to rhyme with meconium and
turned, and walked away.
He had a Pernod on the coaster before him
The seals were indeed in the harbor,
floating queerly like rockets.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Julia Holmes, _Meeks_

A BRILLIANT SHORT novel, hard to categorize. The only comparison that comes to mind is with Coetzee's Waiting for the Barbarians, set in a wholly imaginary place, but with the texture of realism rather than fantasy, while still being loosely enough attached to reality to sustain a parable-like quality. An auspicious debut, that's for sure.

Most of the book is devoted to two characters, Ben and Meeks -- Ben a young, single man whose parents are both dead and who is without visible means of support, Meeks a homeless man of indeterminate age who is under the impression that he is a police officer. Ben's sections are narrated in the third person from Ben's POV, Meeks's in the first person.

For most of the book, one's readerly attention is less absorbed by the situations of Ben and Meeks than by the task of figuring out how the society they imhabit works. As a "bachelor," Ben lives in a special rooming house, and needs a pale suit -- he has only a black one, thus is excluded from "Listening Parties," his best bet for finding a woman to marry. If he does not find a woman to marry by "Independence Day," this community's big September commemoration of its founding by Captain Meeks, he will have to put on a gray suit and become a manual laborer. Meeks (named for the captain, we suppose), known to the community as the crazy man who sleeps in the park, is not a player in this high-stakes marriage market but has worries of his own, e.g., being carted off to parts unspecified by the "Brothers of Mercy."

Holmes gradually reveals that Captain Meeks founded the community on two principles, that communities endure because they are united by a threat and because social norms are rigorously conformed to. Thus we have the "Enemy," in the unending war against whom Ben's father died, the stringent duty to marry or toil for those who have, and the sacrifice which (we at length learn) forms the central act of Independence Day observances.

All too accurate an allegorical analogue, methinks, to the Bush II years. The elements are familiar -- we have a bit of M. Night Shymalan's Village (as read by Zizek), a bit of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," a bit of Auden's "Horae Canonicae" even (as Girard might read it) -- but at the same time the book has its own atmosphere, mainly due to Holmes's fresh and precise prose. One of Ben's memories:

He smelled the narrow, speckled fish cooking, spiked on sharpened sticks stabbed deep into the sand beside small fires, blazes of yellow-orange flower. Beached jellyfish were thick lenses on the sand. His mother brought him a mango; he peeled away the skin inexpertly; he bit into the sweet sherbet-colored fruit; he scraped the hard pit with his teeth. He buried the pit in the sand and rinsed his hands in the seawater. He followed the paranoid, supercilious crabs from wet rock to wet rock. He stared down the long, narrow, speckled fish that gathered in the tidal pools when the tide went out, the fish all facing forward dourly like parishioners in the cool cathedral space between the jetty rocks.

Holmes's ability to animate such moments ensures that the parable unfolds without a dull page.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Ben Doller, _Dead Ahead_

HERE I WAS just writing that I have detected little of Paul Muldoon's influence among younger American poets (younger, that is, than I -- an alarmingly numerous class these days), and then the final poem in Doller's new volume not only rhymes ingeniously (e.g., adjacent/patient) and breaks at one point into sonnet form, but uses the peculiarly Muldoonian trick of using the last line of a section of a long poem to begin the next section.

The poem, "Period Style," is one of three excellent longer poems in the book, along with "Prescription Window"and "The Widow Ching Poems," and the three are strikingly different. "Prescription Window" alternates long lines and short lines while also alternating left justification and right justification to original and intriguing effect, and the Widow Ching sequence handles the theme of love well, and we can always use more of those.

Shall I sing
(I rarely sing)
of the patina
of promotion
the name unlike the name
that going
you gave


the promotion
that came relinquishing the fleet

The Lustre of True Instruction

Lovely, no? A little like Cummings filtered through Pound's Cathay.

Since Doller's last book, FAQ (see LLL, January 2010), was a programmatic work with fairly exacting constraints, Dead Ahead was bound to be more formally and tonally various, but I'm happy to see it's even more formally and tonally various than it had any need to be. Doller is now three-for-three in my book, definitely on my List of Reliables.